Politics complicates Lebanon’s water problems

Sunday 15/05/2016
A dam in Lebanon’s Shabrouh mountains, north of the capital Beirut.

Beirut - Lebanon has some of the highest rainfall of any country in the mostly arid Middle East, yet, during the dry summer, people have to buy extra water for drink­ing, washing and other everyday uses.
A country with a population of 4 million and an average annual rain­fall of more than 800mm, plus tens of centimetres of snowfall, should not experience water shortages.
Fadi Comair, director-general of Lebanon’s Ministry of Water and Energy, said the shortages come as no surprise.
“In principle, Lebanon should not have water issues,” he said. “However, it has to suffer from shortages of water because, un­fortunately, nobody listened to us technocrats when we promoted and submitted a 10-year strategic plan for water demand manage­ment back in 2000.”
Waste and mismanagement of water resources are at the core of Lebanon’s shortages, Comair ex­plained. “We have plans, we have the will, we have the know-how as technocrats and we can resolve the problem in months but the real problem here is the lack of political will,” he said.
Even water is politicised in Leba­non where every public utility from electricity to telecommunications to rubbish collection has fallen vic­tim to political calculation and ma­nipulation.
In 2000, Lebanon was the first Arab state to develop a comprehen­sive strategy for water preservation and management — the Integrat­ed Water Resource Management (IWRM) — but has been unable to implement it.
“Jordan took Lebanon’s IWRM strategy and applied it after intro­ducing some adaptations. Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt also emulated the strategy and implemented it,” Comair said. “Only Lebanon did not because of the lack of the will of politicians.”
Acute water shortages that hit Lebanon in recent years were large­ly blamed on climate change, an ex­ceptionally dry winter in 2014 and the large influx of Syrian refugees, which put additional strain on age­ing infrastructure. However, the water crisis is not merely the result of dry winters and mass population movement but of fundamental and chronic shortfalls in the country’s water management policies and in­frastructure.
“Definitely, the influx of refu­gees impacted the water balance in Lebanon,” Comair said. “In prin­ciple we had previewed a deficit in 2050 but this deficit is brought closer because you have [almost] 2 million people injected in the coun­try. Lebanon is wasting 1.2 billion cubic metres of rainwater in the sea annually because of the lack of wa­ter conservation and management plans.”
With only two operating dams, Lebanon lies far behind other coun­tries on the Mediterranean basin in water collection and conserva­tion. “We need at least 39 dams. Others, like in Cyprus for instance, which is small compared to Leba­non [in population], they have 190 dams. In Syria, they have 263 and in France there are as many as 4,000 dams,” Comair said.
He emphasised the effectiveness of the IWRM strategy in dealing with Lebanon’s water problems and preventing future issues.
The strategy aims at ensuring ad­ditional water resources through the construction of structures to capture water and store it in dam reservoirs and lakes in the wet sea­son for use during the dry season.
The goal is to improve the water network and raise its performance to 90%. At present, water loss in the domestic network through leakage and other forms of waste is estimat­ed to be 50% on average and as high as 80% in some areas.
The strategy includes reforming irrigation technologies by shifting from surface irrigation that has a waste rate of 12,000-13,000 cubic metres per hectare of fresh water to sprinklers and drip irrigation, while allocating treated waste water to irrigation, a technique applied in countries in the northern Mediter­ranean basin.
In parallel to the technical as­pects, the IWRM strategy envisions institutional reforms and updating Lebanon’s water laws to encourage the participation of the private sec­tor in water management.
A few rivers in the Middle East are the major source of water for large areas spanning national bor­ders and access to water is seen as a potential cause of conflict. Comair argued that water sharing could be an incentive for peace, if the con­cept of hydro-diplomacy is applied properly.
“It (hydro-diplomacy) basically relies on the use of international legal tools, including the UN water convention of 1997, to bring coun­tries to apply the concept of equi­table sharing and reasonable use of international waterways,” he said.
“(It questions) why Israel uses 500 litres per day per person while Jordan uses 60, the Palestinians 20 and Lebanon 100. Application of equitable and reasonable use of water could [very well] be a tool for peace, not war.”